How good is Marion Jones? Here's an answer as straight and simple as the 100 itself: She is the greatest sprint talent ever. "Nothing before and nothing probably for a long time to come can match Marion," says Doug Speck, director of the prestigious Arcadia (Calif.) Invitational high school meet. "I'm not sure people realize how lucky we've been to watch her."
Here's what Speck is talking about:
•In 1992 Jones, who was then 16, was far and away the best junior sprinter in the world. She had the six fastest times for the 100 meters, topped by an 11.14; and she had the nine fastest times in the 200, topped by a 22.58. No girl younger than 18 has ever run 200 meters as fast.
•Jones's best 200 came at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials, in which she finished fourth, missing a spot on the U.S. team by a scant .07 of a second.
•In March, Jones, then a senior at Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High, tried a new event, the long jump. In her first meet she jumped 19'10¾", longest in the country this year by a high schooler. Three weeks later she improved to 20'9¼", awing no less an authority than world-record holder Mike Powell. "Give me three or four weeks with her," Powell told Speck, "and she'll be jumping 23 or 24 feet." At the state meet Jones leaped 22'½", second longest in history by a high school girl.
What makes Jones's accomplishments all the more amazing is that her track season doesn't begin until mid-March, after the basketball season ends. Last season Jones, who is 5'11" and 140 pounds, averaged 22.8 points and 14.7 rebounds for Thousand Oaks and was named California's Division I Player of the Year. Thousand Oaks was 60-4 in Jones's two years on the team and this winter climbed as high as No. 8 in USA Today's national poll. Jones has accepted a basketball scholarship to North Carolina, and she plans to compete in both basketball and track for the Tar Heels.
Where does this remarkable talent come from? Marion Toler, Jones's mother, isn't sure. Toler was born in Belize, and when she moved to the U.S. at age 21, she brought with her a passionate faith in the importance of education.
Toler makes no secret of the fact that she helped her daughter choose North Carolina because of its fine journalism school, its record for graduating minorities and its willingness to accommodate a two-sport athlete. "I would not be surprised if it takes a couple of years for her to get settled and work with her academics," says Toler, who is also moving to Chapel Hill. "She's going to have a tight schedule. I'm going to be right there looking."
So what lies ahead for Jones? Her long jumping has opened a lot of eyes. Some think she has the potential to be the greatest heptathlete ever. No, says Mike Byrnes, president of the National Scholastic Sports Foundation, "She's going to be the greatest 400-meter runner ever." And why not? As a sophomore, Jones ran the 400 in 52.91, faster than any high school girl in five years.
The possibilities are tantalizing. "What if in 1996 she is asked to try out for basketball and also makes the track team?" says Byrnes. "She could be one of few athletes in history to medal in two different sports at the same Olympics."
The greatest sprint talent ever dashes from the basketball court to the track and the long-jump pit.